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Old words never die; they just wend their way to their just deserts.
December 29, 2013 11:36 AM   Subscribe

12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms. We generally know what the idioms we use every day mean, but do we give much thought to the individual words that make them up, or why we rarely, if ever, see some of them out of that context? Maybe they're just plain outdated.

Elsewhere on the Internet, a Washington Post blogger doesn't even like using idioms with outdated meanings, even if they're made up of relatively modern words.

However, those with more fondness for abandoned vocabulary may enjoy the dead Obsolete Word of the Day Blog (2006-2010).
posted by The Underpants Monster (52 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
By using archaic words we don't know the independent meaning of, we're meddling in things beyond our ken. Possibly even beyond our barbie.
posted by XMLicious at 11:50 AM on December 29, 2013 [19 favorites]


Today, we know "baller" (NOT, as is commonly misspelled, "Baaler") as an adjective that describes a pleasingly bold action. But the original use of "baller" was as a noun; in the twentieth century NorthWastes, a "baller" was a Homo sapiens who played "basketball". This was a sport in which in which unnaturally tall men repeatedly slammed orange rubber balls against hardwood floors, demonstrating enough skill to sell shoes. Despite the coincidental sound, it actually has nothing to do with the Baalers we see cheerfully performing their duties at temple each Friday evening, worshipping our Dark Horned Lord.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:01 PM on December 29, 2013 [67 favorites]


That WP blog is a total rant by someone who doesn't like poetic language at all.

I'm fond of expressing myself through poetic language. It makes for a much more interesting world when everything isn't just said through Dick And Jane level language. I like how there are words which have only survived through being used in idioms. Or how there are totally outdated word-pictures which still carry meaning in our modern world.

I'd tell that blogger to get off my lawn, but would probably be met with a rant about how for many, lawns don't exist and have several alternate sayings suggested at me, none of which anyone would ever use.
posted by hippybear at 12:12 PM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


My favorite example is the verb "champ," as in "champing at the bit." It provides endless opportunities for pedantry by grammar and spelling prescriptivists who will practically choke on their own tongues in their hurry to correct anyone who says "chomping at the bit." And yet, what does it mean to "champ"? "To bite or chew, especially noisily or impatiently" (source, etymology 2) - not so very unlike "chomp" after all! Basically, this word only still exists to facilitate the narcissism of small differences.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:12 PM on December 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


Elsewhere on the Internet, a Washington Post blogger doesn't even like using idioms with outdated meanings, even if they're made up of relatively modern words.

I guess when you put the "pun" in punditry you take the "laughs" out of jokes.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:15 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


MetaFilter: only still exists to facilitate the narcissism of small differences.
posted by hippybear at 12:20 PM on December 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


So you like to chomp on the butts of people who insist on "champing at the bit?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:34 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I totally use the the versions of Umbrage.

I didn't take four years of Latin for nothing. Besides, how else can you use penumbra?
posted by The Whelk at 12:47 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


"That WP blog is a total rant by someone who doesn't like poetic language at all."

In fact, he's not even a fan of language, so much as writing snarky columns. There's not an actual linguaphile in the world who isn't aware of, and amused by or at least interested in, the "outdated" meanings of words...

... which is to say, the meanings of words. They change: spelling, pronunciation, and meaning. "Blue" comes from a word meaning "steel", and has variously also meant "bright" and "yellow".
posted by IAmBroom at 12:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Just deserts" reminds me of the confusion over what a "desert island" is.
posted by Xalf at 12:55 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love my obscure words. Eugene Ehrlich is my hero...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:07 PM on December 29, 2013


I took blacksmith lessons once (I'd love to go back to it) and they were awesome. I really liked the sequence of heating up a piece of metal, taking it out, working it for a while, and then putting it back in. When you start, you do this one piece at a time. A little later on in the lesson you realize (or are shown) than you can work on one thing while another is being heated. Awesome! Saves time, and you start feeling like a bit of a pro. (This is the usual early beginner illusion, of course. You know less than nothing.) You work with two pieces for a while and it feels good.

Then some insane cocky part of you think that moving up to three would be clever. Even more efficient! Even more awesome! So you try it and at first it goes well, but of course you don't really know what you're doing and you get confused and you drop a hot piece of metal almost on your foot, and almost grab hot tongs with your ungloved hands and it all goes merrily to hell.

And you think to yourself: "I had too many irons in the fire."

Oh.

To this day, if someone says that old cliche in my presence, I can smell the forge, and it isn't a cliche anymore.
posted by feckless at 1:10 PM on December 29, 2013 [109 favorites]


"Just deserts" reminds me of the confusion over what a "desert island" is.

That's funny; I remember being bothered as a child by the Gilligan's Island theme calling the the island a desert when it clearly wasn't. Hadn't thought of that in forever, and didn't realize it was still marked as "open" in my mental issue tracker. Now I can die with one less unanswered question.
posted by Ickster at 1:11 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


So I looked at that obsolete word blog. I can't wait for the first opportunity to call someone a slubberdegullion and when they say "where in the world did that word come from?" I will answer "The Underpants Monster."
posted by headnsouth at 1:11 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I love that Nimrod was a biblical mighty hunter, and only became popularly used to mean a dimwit when Bugs Bunny called Elmer Fudd it ironically.
posted by yellowbinder at 1:20 PM on December 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


Also if I had my druthers I'd know what druthers are.
posted by yellowbinder at 1:22 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


a "druther" is what you'd rather be doing. you-druther be doing it.
posted by hippybear at 1:26 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah. It's odd that it's relatively recent American vernacular. I was kind of expecting it was a Norman corruption of a Saxon word meaning an exemption from certain work obligations that was given under the feudal system, originating in Northumbira but subsequently spread into common usage with the unification of the English crown. I don't know why I was suspecting something that oddly specific, but that's what I was expecting.
posted by Grimgrin at 1:37 PM on December 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


And yet, what does it mean to "champ"? "To bite or chew, especially noisily or impatiently" (source, etymology 2) - not so very unlike "chomp" after all! Basically, this word only still exists to facilitate the narcissism of small differences.

I think it would be a great pity if this meaning of 'champ' were to finally dip below the horizon because that would compromise my favorite old riddle:
Thirty-two white horses
Upon a red hill.
Now they champ,
Now they stamp,
Now they're still.
posted by jamjam at 1:39 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Now they chomp. Now they stomp.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:58 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Many modern idioms have their source in colourful nautical expressions
posted by islander at 1:59 PM on December 29, 2013


Besides, how else can you use penumbra?

When you're on the United States Supreme Court and you really want to rule a certain way on a particular case despite the fact that existing law won't let you, so you need to come up with a fancy way of making it sound like you're not just making shit up.
posted by valkyryn at 2:07 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm kind of depressed that Arika Okrent is writing listicles.
posted by threeants at 2:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


yellowbinder: "I love that Nimrod was a biblical mighty hunter, and only became popularly used to mean a dimwit when Bugs Bunny called Elmer Fudd it ironically."

My tent trailer is a Nimrod (which when it was built in 1963 was a pretty good name for a camper IMO). Always gets a double take when talking about it with fellow campers.
posted by Mitheral at 2:35 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


You rarely see a "wend" without a "way."

One reason I abandoned the "wendell" nick was catching myself saying I was going to "wendell my way"...
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:57 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh shit, I just got that. They're teeth!
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:19 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


That WP blog is a total rant by someone who doesn't like poetic language at all.

I actually found it surprisingly funny -- I don't agree with him on most of these, and I do really like language and old-fashioned idioms and stuff, but the article made me laugh.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 3:22 PM on December 29, 2013


My biggest pet peeve (not the small, blue, furry one) is when people confuse rein and reign.

You don't give someone free reign, for cryin' out loud.

I know, I know, ridiculous. My peeve and I are leaving now. Excuse the mess in the corner.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


You don't give someone free reign, for cryin' out loud.

I get amused when someone says a contest is "no holes barred." I say "Um... what kind of contest are you having?!"

Also, as I have said before, you need to be very careful around those dessert islands....
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:08 PM on December 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


These listicles turn my brain into one big miasmic fug.
posted by miyabo at 4:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


That there is a man in high dudgeon. RIMSHOT!

One of my favorite bits of terminology shifting was a twentieth-century misunderstanding. In the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett's detective Sam Spade, pissed at the bad guy's toady, tells the main bad guy to rein in his "gunsel." Spade was taking a dig at the bad guy and toady, as "gunsel" meant "boy kept as sex toy by older man." Hammett liked using obscure slang, and most folks assumed it meant "gunman" or "thug."

Jump ahead to the 1970s, when the Depression-era tough guys are once again popular. To make the stories sound "streetwise," writers have characters throw the term "gunsel" around as thought it were common criminal slang for "gunman" or "thug."

Heh.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 4:33 PM on December 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


So if giving umbrage is to put someone in the shade, and we now have the term "to throw shade" is that merely a beautiful but unrelated linguistic coincidence?
posted by emjaybee at 4:52 PM on December 29, 2013


Oh shit, I just got that. They're teeth!
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:19 PM on December 29 [2 favorites +] [!]


Someone who's never read 'the Hobbit'
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:05 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Teeth
posted by The Whelk at 5:09 PM on December 29, 2013


The WP blogger could see and even buy hotcakes at his local McDonalds.
posted by LoraT at 5:13 PM on December 29, 2013


Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem
posted by hippybear at 5:14 PM on December 29, 2013


Don't be silly - whelks don't have teeth. You must mean "Elk".
posted by sneebler at 5:36 PM on December 29, 2013


You must mean "Elk".

Anne Elk?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:42 PM on December 29, 2013


Annie Elklie, sharp shooter phenom of the forest.
posted by hippybear at 6:03 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


You don't give someone free reign, for cryin' out loud.
That one is, to my mind, is somewhat forgivable since rein and reign are homonyms.
What gets me are eggcorns like "for all intensive purposes" or "it's a doggy-dog world".
Puts me on tenderhooks as to what they're gonna say next.
posted by islander at 6:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


feckless: And you think to yourself: "I had too many irons in the fire."

Oh.

To this day, if someone says that old cliche in my presence, I can smell the forge, and it isn't a cliche anymore.


I'm not sure what it says about me that the phrase I did exactly this with was "cut the cheese."
posted by darksasami at 7:00 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know exactly what you mean. I did the same thing with "screwed the pooch."
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


oneswellfoop: "You rarely see a "wend" without a "way."

One reason I abandoned the "wendell" nick was catching myself saying I was going to "wendell my way"...
"

Do you ever catch yourself describing something as being done in ... you know...
posted by Reverend John at 8:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Whelk: "I totally use the the versions of Umbrage.

I didn't take four years of Latin for nothing. Besides, how else can you use penumbra?
"

I said Shut Up!
posted by Reverend John at 8:21 PM on December 29, 2013


What gets me are eggcorns like "for all intensive purposes" or "it's a doggy-dog world".

you pedants are gonna give me a low self of steam.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:58 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


You're just looking for an escape goat now.
posted by h00py at 10:21 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Don't be silly - whelks don't have teeth. You must mean "Elk".
posted by The Whelk at 11:50 PM on December 29, 2013


Oh jeez, I've been writing 'just desserts' all this time, oh Lordi.

'Dint' is still used a fair bit here (NW England), like a more piercing dent. Like stabbing a pencil case with a compass rather than punching it.
posted by bumcivilian at 4:17 AM on December 30, 2013


The 'language' category at Futility Closet blog regularly desticates aspectabund, even euphuistic words that could tempt only the most fleering, epeolatrous crossword-maker.

One can imagine that many of these learned coinages arose - in a time without tv, radio, even music - upon waking up after first sleep for a biscuit and cold tea. Occasioning a need for the somnabulistic efficacy of an understimulating score of obscure passages. The muttering soul in a slumbrous stupor concocting them anew, seemingly clever whilst half-awake, but already unfathomable in the cold faint grey of dawn. Nonetheless collecting like odd stones.
posted by Twang at 5:10 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


The WP blogger could see and even buy hotcakes at his local McDonalds.

Yeah, it lost me right away. I know what hotcakes are, I don’t really know what funnel cakes are. This is one of those articles where the author appears to think the world stops at the end of their nose.

I get amused when someone says a contest is "no holes barred." I say "Um... what kind of contest are you having?!"

You will certainly want to clarify whether it’s a contest "you" are having or "we" are having. Which answer is preferred will vary from person to person.
posted by bongo_x at 8:46 PM on December 30, 2013


Sometimes "no holes barred" is a cooperation, not a contest.
posted by hippybear at 10:48 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


The WP blogger could see and even buy hotcakes at his local McDonalds.

I remember one of those "Ricky mangles English" scenes from I Love Lucy where he asked for "Oatjacks," and then "Flapcakes," until Lucy said, "Where I come from, we call 'em hotcakes." Jamestown's not far away from where I grew up eating "pancakes" a couple of generations later. Still, I knew what she meant because of McDonald's.

(The thing I remember most about McDonald's hotcakes is cutting through the foam tray with my plastic knife trying to eat them.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:20 PM on December 31, 2013


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